Stepping outside for a deep breath of fresh air is one of life’s simple pleasures. But for some people, that same deep breath can prompt breathing difficulties or chest-tightening.
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If this sounds familiar, you may have adult-onset asthma.
“People think about asthma starting in childhood, but developing asthma later on is more common than you think,” says pulmonologist Rachel Taliercio, DO. “However, we are not as good at recognizing asthma in older adults.”
The resulting delays in diagnosis and treatment can lead to serious problems.
Here, she answers common questions about adult-onset asthma and explains why it is often more serious later in life:
A: The reason adults develop asthma isn’t always clear. Respiratory infections, allergies and airway irritants, such as smoke and mold, can be triggers.
Asthma inflames the airways, triggering excess mucus production and smooth muscle spasms. This narrows the airways, causing symptoms such as:
“While the symptoms for adult-onset and childhood asthma are the same, they are typically intermittent in childhood and persistent in adulthood,” says Dr. Taliercio. Of course, if your symptoms include a fever, it’s worth a call to your doctor to rule out coronavirus.
Inhaled and oral asthma medications, which open the airways and soothe inflammation, are used to treat acute symptoms and prevent flare-ups.
A: Yes. The death rate for adult-onset asthma is substantially higher than the death rate for childhood asthma.
One reason may be that adults either ignore asthma symptoms or attribute them to being overweight, being out of shape or getting older.
Asthma symptoms can also mimic those of other illnesses, including:
“Unfortunately, any delays in the diagnosis and treatment of asthma can permanently impair lung function,” says Dr. Taliercio, so it’s important to seek medical attention right away if you think you may have developed asthma.
A: Most childhood asthma disappears in adulthood. But having childhood asthma increases your risk of a relapse in your 30s or 40s. Other factors that increase the risk of adult-onset asthma include:
Asthma can be more difficult to control in adults for several reasons:
For these reasons, adults with asthma are at increased risk for flare-ups and even hospitalization.
A: To keep asthma under control, follow your doctor’s instructions as closely as possible. Here are some additional tips:
If you suspect you might have asthma, see your doctor as soon as possible.
“Undiagnosed asthma can contribute to further loss of lung function that may be permanent,” Dr. Taliercio says. “Don’t ignore your symptoms.”
You’ll breathe a whole lot easier once you address the problem.